Skif is mendacity within the moss, a mutated canine gnawing at his shin. He pulls a pistol to fend it off, however — gasp — the clip is empty. Simply earlier than it might probably chew on his neck, he musters a deft kick, booting the pooch right into a gravitational anomaly. The canine floats delicately in its mild embrace earlier than being compressed right into a bathe of meaty chunks. This constitutes my heat welcome into the unforgiving world of STALKER 2: Coronary heart of Chornobyl.
It has been 14 years for the reason that final official STALKER recreation (2009’s Name of Pripyat), and GSC Sport World has returned with what seems to be one other advanced mix of FPS, RPG, and survival horror. Like its trio of predecessors, Coronary heart of Chornobyl is about in an alt-history model of the Chornobyl Anomalous Exclusion Zone, the place a second catastrophe in 2006 summoned unusual environmental phenomena, coveted supernatural artifacts, and a rogues’ gallery of mutants.
As one of many titular stalkers, you come to chart “the Zone” in quest of riches and solutions, dodging its hazards and liaising with its lone wolves and varied factions. The way it all shakes out could be very a lot as much as the alternatives you make. The collection’ hands-off strategy and treacle-thick environment are why the video games have nurtured such a die-hard cult following (and numerous fan-made spinoffs).
It doesn’t take lengthy for me to seek out comforting hallmarks in STALKER 2. After the doggy debacle, a curious stranger throws me a single steel bolt (a trademark device of the collection), which I can chuck in varied instructions to detect and keep away from the anomalies that litter the Zone. The spatial distortion that mutilated the mutt was both a Vortex or a Whirligig — however there are such a lot of extra varieties past these, and gamers will come to know their names and their delicate variations in the event that they intention to outlive on this hostile atmosphere.
As soon as I make it to my toes, I discover I’m surrounded by these anomalies, ripping via the material of actuality with an oil-slick cleaning soap bubble impact, evocative of the Hiss in Treatment’s Management. STALKER 2 is an Unreal Engine 5 recreation, and a handsome one at that, however striving for the very seams of graphical constancy has come at a value. The construct I performed was tough across the edges; I skilled a few onerous crashes, in addition to some placeholder belongings and bugs that went past the charming old-school jank I used to be anticipating.
Even so, nothing made me wish to cease taking part in. Each time I used to be kicked again to the demo’s start line, I at all times ended up stumbling into one thing new and intriguing in STALKER 2’s dynamic open world. I listened to the bolt-giving guardian angel in a single run, leading to some useful steering. In one other, I threw a grenade at his toes and ran the other method. It was good to know early on that, like its ancestors, STALKER 2 lets you fully disrupt the content material funnel should you’re so inclined. Quests would randomly fail as I fought via the Zone, leaving chaos and casings in my wake, and as annoying because it sounds, this was music to my ears.
The demo’s fundamental path virtually at all times led me to a rotting shack the place hounds had beset some unlucky stalker. After saving him, I had a weird, ultimately hostile dialog with him; he needed me to depart him alone. His ingratitude didn’t go away me with out threads left to tie up, although. He informed me a few close by outpost, dilapidated however tattooed by the persistence of nature (and bandits).
Right here, I bought to check STALKER 2’s gunplay, which feels nearer to a navy simulator than a contemporary shooter. Enemies don’t simply run out of canopy like spongy sacks of XP; the wily crew I confronted most well-liked to outthink me with gradual flanking actions. The AI has a refreshing caginess to it, and there are not any well being bars, so accuracy is paramount. The weapons really feel good and heavy, too, with extreme kickback and prolonged reload animations.
But it surely was the sport’s extra surreal encounters that left an enduring, tantalizing impression. Near the top of my first run, I cautiously opened a barn door to seek out unimaginable spouts of fireplace — Burner anomalies, it turned out — emanating from the concrete. Earlier than I might even have the time to react, a band of buff quadrupeds with terrifying, noisy faces began lurching at me. They seemed like headcrabs with a household gymnasium move.
As soon as I’d dispatched them, I shortly scanned for any equipable artifacts that might have spouted from the anomaly — the remnants of a Roadside Picnic. I couldn’t discover any on this construct, however you may spot them in trailers for STALKER 2, so I’m positive they’ll issue into the complete recreation.
Finally, the “Steamed Hams” section of my 22 Short Films About STALKER 2 reared its head as I went to loot the remnants of an outdated home and observed a Bloodsucker’s invisible silhouette aberrating within the nook of my eye. What adopted was a prolonged, exhilarating battle throughout which I needed to account for its lunges and time my well being injections to keep away from sure dying. Fortunately, I had unintentionally lured the beast towards a wandering faction of space-helmet-wearing troopers, who helped end it off earlier than turning their weapons on me.
I ran as removed from the troopers as I might because the sky began to burn into an attractive burgundy, foreshadowing an imminent, lethal emission. This tide of hue dominated the atmosphere, illuminating that I had no likelihood of constructing it to the haven of my on-screen goal. I sought shelter in a big advanced, hunkering down in an unfinished workplace, its partitions lined with checkerboard textures. However after roughly 20 minutes of compelling mini adventures, I used to be content material to be misplaced to the Zone.
The spirit of the collection is alive and properly in STALKER 2, however regardless of how excited I felt after my hands-on demo, I bought the impression that the sport nonetheless wants extra time within the oven. STALKER 2 was delayed to early 2024 throughout Gamescom, however I’m positive followers received’t thoughts ready a little bit longer to get their palms on it, particularly contemplating the unimaginable disruption to the sport’s improvement attributable to the continuing Russian invasion of Ukraine, the place developer GSC Sport World relies.
I’m fascinated by the prospect of STALKER 2 coming to Xbox Sport Go on launch, given its oppressive environment and old-school immersive ideas. This can be a area of interest collection that’s sticking to its weapons somewhat than adapting for a contemporary viewers. Inevitably, the sport will overwhelm some new gamers, and even go away a nasty first impression, however the hope is that they stick round lengthy sufficient to see the forest for the timber. It’s all in service of an inimitable world and an environment in contrast to something in a really very long time.